It Happened One Night

      By Lucia Adams




This film is so shocking I had to see it twice to believe my eyes and ears. The winner of all five Academy Awards including Best Picture of 1933, Frank Capra’s early “screwball” comedy, with spareness in setting, crisp editing, snappy fade to black and fast paced scenes, is a masterpiece of filmmaking. In a tightly choreographed dance macabre of a socially mismatched couple, the inevitable Thirties Heiress and the Tough Guy flying by the seat of his pants. Columbia Pictures assumed it had a flop so filming was reduced to four weeks.



The simple story of perfect strangers falling in love overnight on a bus from Miami to New York and all the misadventures that ensue on the road in automobiles, like a Max Sennett comedy, is intoxicating. An unemployed rather drunken newspaper reporter, Peter Warne, a brutally masculine young Clark Gable shouts at his former boss, you fired the best newshound your filthy scandal sheet ever had…That was free verse, you gashouse palooka! Robert Rifkin’s relentlessly brilliant journalese with plenty of Oh-Yeahisms is based on a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams Night Bus.


Walter Connolly as the banker father.

Ellie Andrews is the spoiled brat of a rich father, a far too sophisticated Claudette Colbert for the role, held hostage by her father on a yacht to stop her joining her fey aviator husband after her fortune. After the Wall Street banker slaps her hard across the face for defying his order to annul the marriage she jumps ship literally, boards a bus and falls into the arms of the common man, reeling from the Depression like those hopping freight cars and struggling to pay bills vignettes in the film.



They become man and wifely almost instantly so great is the attraction and when not threatening to jam something down her throat Peter rhapsodizes about his unfulfilled dreams that resonated then and still resonates. When she asks, Who are you? he replies, Who me? I’m the whippoorwill that cries in the night. I’m the soft morning breeze that caresses your lovely face. Or when she asks if he has ever been in love, I saw an island in the Pacific once. I’ve never been able to forget it. That’s where I’d like to take her. She’d have to be the sort of a girl who’d jump in the surf with me and love it as much as I did. Nights when you and the moon and the water all become one. Shoot the moon, snatch the stars and so forth.



Who wouldn’t fall for that from a devilishly handsome stranger? Take me with you, Peter. Take me to your island……. Nothing else matters. ..I can’t let you out of my life now. I couldn’t live without you and she cries she would rather be a plumber’s daughter than a banker’s. Growing up in the Fifties I waited for love like this to strike and here I was falling for it again, as I put iTunes on hold for a minute to wipe my misty eyes. Then Peter tries again to knock Ellie off her high horse again, not in a Benedict and Beatrice banter of equals, but as a bully to a child-woman who needs a man to prevent her from starving or drowning in a shallow stream.


Frank Capra with his stars.


I had you pegged right from the jump. Just The only way you get anything is to buy it, isn’t it? …..Ever hear of the word humility? Humility? The Sicilian immigrant Francesco Rosario Capra with his new name Frank
Russell Capra was a romantic populist in his later films, “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and here he is en route to creating that American Myth of the average Joe, democratic ideals, humble acceptance of life’s offerings, love of the little people and as John Cassavetes said, “Maybe there really wasn’t an America. It was only Frank Capra.” Appearing in the last year of Prohibition and the start of the New Deal in FDR’s first term his love of mankind shines through …though it seems to be reserved for men. Literally.



The film just made it under the Pre-Code wire five months before the 1930 Hays Act was enforced (it hadn’t been before because studios were big money makers in hard times) by conservative puritanical Joseph Breen. Though there is no sex, no nudity, none of the graphic vulgarity we are accustomed to from Hollywood today the characters do spend two nights in the same small room in an autocamp (an early motel), if with a decorous wall of Jericho or blanket hung up between them. But there is Gable-generated sexual tension (Colbert inadvertently as cool as Coco Chanel) and some racy dialogue such as the bus passenger Shapley who says, You know, there’s nothing I like better than to meet a high-class mama that can snap ’em back at ya. ‘Cause the colder they are, the hotter they get. That’s what I always say. Yes, sir, when a cold mama gets hot, boy, how she sizzles.



Peter is rehired after giving the paper a big scoop about the runaway heiress and the shrew is tamed, thrown over Tarzan’s shoulder and slapped on the posterior. When he gets the green light from her father poor Ellie is all his and the flying Brit in the autogyro out of her life. Would Capra had left it there (we could have overlooked the colossal male ego and some of the ‘shut ups’) without his parting salvo to the Father who agrees that
What she needs is a guy that’d take a sock at her once a day – whether it is coming to her or not. If you had half the brains you’re supposed to have, you’d have done it yourself long ago.
Anachronistic Fallacy, guilty as charged, I acknowledge you can’t judge Shakespeare, Jefferson or Tutankhamun by the modalities of 2018, but, but….How do you parse that sentence? Do you give it a free pass because the film is so delightful? Gable would replay this role five years later but Scarlett O’Hara would be a much tougher opponent than Ellie.